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Early years teaching and the development of children's communication

Working as a teacher or classroom assistant with children of any age can be a challenging career option to pursue, but many would attest that teaching at the early years stage poses certain difficulties that simply do not exist in an older setting.

Most prevalent among these conditions is communication disability, highlighting the need for teachers to be strong communicators themselves, with perseverance and patience also high on the list of favourable attributes.

In Britain, an enormous number of children have some form of language or communication difficulty – and they can be divided into two groups. According to the latest figures from communication charity I Can, up to ten per cent of all children in the UK have a long-term, or persistent, speech problem. Meanwhile, more than 50 per cent have more transient difficulties upon reaching school age and, with sufficient support from teachers and assistants, are likely to catch up relatively quickly. There is also a considerable group of youngsters who begin their education with impoverished levels of language, which may also be transient.

A study conducted by I Can in Stoke-on-Trent found this category to represent as many as 84 per cent of children in some areas. Recent statistics from the Basic Skills Agency have shown that these alarming figures are reflected in the concerns of school staff, who reportedly believe around half of all children to start school lacking the communication skills vital to an effective educational beginning.

While most would argue that young people require thorough communicational guidance throughout their school life, many would concede that it is the early years environment in which teachers play the most important role. A recent Education and Skills Committee report on special educational needs (SEN) revealed a clear association between early social disadvantage and later special needs. In particular, the communication environment experienced by early years pupils was identified as being crucial in ensuring school readiness and decreasing the chances of low attainment in subsequent learning. There is some evidence from the US to suggest that enrichment programmes at the early years stage can have a greater impact on long-term potential than remedial measures put in place later on.

Conversely, the UK continues to invest almost three times as much per student in higher education than it does for each child under the age of five. Some might argue that this represents a failure to recognise the important role played by teachers and teaching assistants in the early years environment. It could also be seen to emphasise the need for teaching staff who truly understand the needs of younger children – and who are able to fully engage all children from the very start.

With so many youngsters starting school with either persistent or transient communication difficulties, the urgent need for a workforce skilled in aiding and supporting their development is critical. Some would suggest, however, that, despite the huge number of children starting their learning life with a communication disability, early years teaching staff are inadequately trained to deal with such matters. There is evidence to show that training certainly remains somewhat limited, with more than a third of teachers recalling little or no preparation during their initial teacher training for dealing with SEN-related issues.

According to I Can, more than 60 per cent of primary school teaching staff lack confidence in their ability to meet the language needs of early years pupils. With the vast majority of British children with language and communication difficulties educated in mainstream schools, there is clearly a definite need for teacher training which incorporates specialist knowledge in this area. After all, effective communication is arguably the single most important factor in the development of social skills. It is during early years that young children begin to develop social abilities such as cooperation, taking turns, sharing and solving everyday social problems. There is plenty of evidence to show that, if these skills are not learnt at the early years stage, there will naturally be an impact upon overall future development.

Further to their primary role of delivering the necessary curricula and maintaining order in the classroom, therefore, teachers and assistants are encouraged to do all that they can to nurture their pupils' communicational and social abilities. Even the seemingly basic skills of knowing to look at others while talking to them and listening without interrupting are fundamental social attributes that have the potential to significantly affect a person's lifetime development.